Though it was offering a free Christian college campus with a famous name—D. L. Moody—attached, for years the National Christian Foundation (NCF) couldn’t give it away.
Then today, the charity announced that the Massachusetts campus will be donated to Thomas Aquinas College and The Moody Center.
The Catholic and Protestant groups will take over the buildings on May 2.
It’s been a long time coming. The 217-acre campus was the site of Moody’s first school for girls in 1879; two years later, he started one for boys on the other side of the Connecticut River. The Bible institute developed there was a forerunner of the Moody Bible Institute in downtown Chicago.
In 1971, the two schools became coeducational; in 2005, they consolidated onto the west campus. That left the campus on the east side of the river empty and for sale.
The campus is enormous, with about 500,000 square feet spread across 40 buildings on more than 200 acres.
It was purchased by the Green family, who own the Hobby Lobby franchise, for $100,000 in 2009. They gave it a $5 million upgrade, including new sidewalks, fresh paint in the 2,200-seat auditorium, and a seamlessly reinforced stone chapel.
But when they offered it to Christian colleges, almost all balked.
"Liberty is a large school, but we still couldn't see how we'd utilize that whole property," Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr told Religion News Service. "We suggested that maybe several schools could work together to jointly use the property for different programs. … We put together a proposal along those lines."
The Greens ended up awarding the campus to Grand Canyon University (GCU) after the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board—which hoped to use the campus to train missionaries and host retreats—withdrew from consideration.
"We were looking for somebody that had a Christian orthodoxy in line with what D. L. Moody himself would appreciate," Hobby Lobby president Steven Green said.
But five weeks after winning the campus, GCU gave it back.
"We were willing to make a $150 million investment, but we really had trouble with the city of Northfield," GCU president Brian Mueller told RNS. "Northfield was concerned that growing the campus to 5,000 students would alter the basic culture and the basic feel of the area."
The town refused to help the school pay for $30 million in sewer and road upgrades, then asked for an environmental impact study.
"We were ending up having to cover the burden of all of that," Mueller said. "It started to get overwhelming."
Two months later, the Greens gave the site to the NCF, one of America’s largest charities, which continued to look for new ownership. Nine months in, the NCF opened the search to non-Christian organizations.
"Our strong preference is to find somebody who will use to it to advance the gospel, (but) we'll look at other organizations as well,” Aimee Minnich, president of the affiliate overseeing the Northfield property, told RNS in 2013. "It's possible that there are organizations doing the work of Christ without saying that they're doing it in Christ's name.”
It took four more years, but finally it looks like the NCF has a taker.
Most of the campus will be used by Thomas Aquinas College, a Catholic liberal arts school in California with an enrollment of 377 this year.
“To maintain an intimate community of learners at the college, we have thought it important to keep the student body on our California campus at 400 or fewer,” stated Thomas Aquinas College president Michael F. McLean in a press release. “We have been considering, therefore, the possibility of a second campus.”
“We are deeply grateful to the National Christian Foundation for this magnificent gift of the Northfield campus, and we are extremely thankful for their help in creating a $5 million matching grant fund to help Thomas Aquinas College launch its educational program in Massachusetts,” McLean stated.
“We look forward to working with the town of Northfield and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. With God’s help, we will provide even more young people the intellectual, moral, and spiritual formation they need to serve the church and our country well.”
The rest of the space will be used by The Moody Center, which aims to build a museum for the evangelist along with restoring the homestead and the 2,200-seat auditorium where Moody held his famous revivals.
Like the college, The Moody Center has also created a $5 million matching grant fund with the NCF.
“Northfield was once a premier destination for Christian leaders and conferences,” stated the NCF’s Emmitt Mitchell, who helped with the deal. “[T]hrough this transition of ownership, The Moody Center has the opportunity to again re-establish the property as a preeminent location for teaching and training biblical scholars.”